Iranian filmmakers love two things in particular: neorealism and metafictionality. Social issues, using the documentary style, working with amateur performers, frequent presence of a film camera on the screen in various contexts, self- reflectivity — this is e.g. Jafar Panahi’s cinema. By toying with the Iranian censorship, Panahi made self-referentiality the center of at least some of his works, appearing personally on the screen, shooting films in real time or creating a similar impression ( This Is Not a Film, Taxi, Three Faces). In the films of another Iranian master, Abbas Kiarostami, the viewer is constantly reminded that he is an observer, and this awareness is a field of dialogue with the medium itself (The Koker Trilogy: Where Is the Friend’s House?, And Life Goes On, Through the Olive Trees).
While Ahmad Bahrami follows his neo-realist colleagues in his Venice-award-winning The Wasteland, the universal, anti-capitalist dimension of his film updates the image of Iran we are accustomed to at Western festivals. The director adapts the narrative known from Rashomon by Akira Kurosawa. The moments before the speech of the owner of the brick factory, which the film is about, are presented from the perspective of subsequent employees. Among them is Shahu and his family, Kurds who live in fear for their doomed father. Ebrahim in turn is in love with Gohar, whose unfavorable father, Mashebad, is trying to prevent this relationship. There is also a withdrawn Sarvar (Mahdie Nassaj) with her son, and Lotfollah (Ali Bagheri) who has a crush on her. Hopeless, since he has no perspective as a man who was born in a brick factory and spent his entire life here following the boss’s orders and acting as an intermediary between him and other workers.
The brickyard, where workers struggle with the elements of fire and earth, is one of the last two in a sun-scorched valley that was once famous for producing this less and less desirable material. Everything is watched by the Boss (Farrokh Nemati) who rarely visits the factory, observing his protégés with a strict eye, and instead of overdue payments, offering them promises just waiting for the right time to fulfill.
The Wasteland strikes with an atmosphere of helplessness, submission, rebellion suffocated in the bud, an eternal expectation of happiness that has no right to be born on the scorched ground. Even though the Boss’ — who is looking more and more like an evil demiurge than a righteous father — indifference and insensitivity become clear the moment we first witness an excerpt from his speech. Bahrami lengthens workers’ waiting for the sentence. Although the perspectives of each brickmaker are different, one day of work, observed several times, becomes hundreds of days worked in a burning-hot wilderness. A hundred days without a payday, a hundred days with no prospects for a better future, a hundred pointless days serving only to maintain a bubble full of delusions.
Beautiful, black and white photos taken by Masoud Amini Tirani make the ice brought by Lotfallah sparkle like a moonstone in the gray-yellow landscape surrounding the brickyard. Though undoubtedly fleetingly beautiful, Bahrami’s work is a portrait of a soulless, unscrupulous exploitation which hides its true face behind a convincing, calm tone: patience, all in good time. But time for bricklayers is a value that melts as quickly as the ice in the desert.